Police and other officials are investigating a fire-pit mishap that critically injured three young children, including a baby, and their parents in the Lake Erie shoreline community of Port Burwell. A relative told The London Free Press an accelerant was used to help start the fire for a cookout and the injuries followed, though the exact details are not clear. Our Calvi Leon spoke with Mark MacDonald, president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, about the general hazards of fire pits, which are among the most popular outdoor home amenities, and collected these tips to keep in mind:
Make sure the fire is small and far from buildings or other structures. “Keep the fire small in size and in some sort of enclosure,” MacDonald said. The best option, he added, is a “spark arrester,” a mesh screen that goes above the fire to prevent sparks and ashes from shooting out.
Make sure you have what MacDonald calls an “extinguishing agent,” including a garden hose or sand. “We prefer a hose if it’s near a home, to put the fire out." Per NBC News, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission recorded 5,300 injuries linked to fire pits and outdoor heaters in 2017, triple the number a decade earlier.
MacDonald said it’s critical that parents have conversations about fire safety with kids. “Fire is a tool, not a toy,” he said, citing the message in the association's fire prevention program. People should keep a distance from the fire, as radiant heat can easily travel beyond one metre from where someone is sitting, MacDonald said.
You don’t want (the fire) near combustibles, citing strong winds as a factor that can shift how a fire moves and spreads. “We really emphasize that you just burn clean, dry, untreated wood,” he said. “Don’t burn lumber or painted wood, especially if you’re cooking any form of food over it, you want to make sure there are no chemicals involved.” The fire can be dangerous and unpredictable when people add flammable and combustible liquids or fuels that aid in making it bigger, MacDonald added.
If someone does catch fire, MacDonald says to remember the stop, drop and roll method. Using a cool towel, or water source like a bucket or hose, can help cool the burn and prevent it from worsening. He also said to always call 911 immediately.
Fire pits were rated the most popular outdoor design feature by the American Society of Landscape Architects, NBC News reported in 2018. They're increasingly common in backyards, and there are risks to children – though MacDonald says incidents like the one in Port Burwell are not common.
"In my opinion it (injuries) doesn't tend to happen with young children very often," he said. “My experience is more that campfire injuries are late at night with young adults who are maybe having a bush fire or a big campfire out back.”
Parents, he added, should treat it like a chance to teach their kids about safety.
“When it comes to outdoor burning, and campfires, I think there's a real opportunity for parents to educate their children, on the dangers of fire and on the safety that you have to have when you're around the fire," he said.
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press